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16 October 2014
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History from Headstones

As part of a series of special features, Ronan Lundy visits the Churchyard at Ballywillan near Portrush.

Ballywillan Graveyard near Portrush, Co. Antrim

Ballywillan Church (Ballywillin) is situated about one mile outside Portrush on the Ballywillan Road. The old graveyard at Ballywillin is unusually large when compared to other churches of a similar period. Ronan Lundy visited the graveyard with William Roulston of the Ulster Historical Foundation and historians Dr Bob Curran & Hugh McGrattan.

The ruins of the old church at Ballywillan near Portrush, Co.Antrim
Ruins of the old Ballywillan church

Ruins of the old church here date back to the 12th Century. It has no roof now but the walls are intact. William Roulston says that this is an important site from an archaeological point of view.

It’s not known who built this church, nor is there a definite date of its building but this place would certainly have been the main Parish church for Ballywillan.

In the early 17th Century came the reformation and, as was the case with so many others, this church would have been taken over by the Church of Ireland.

Surviving records show that throughout the 17th Century the church here had fallen into a dilapidated state and it was really only towards the end of the century that it was repaired to be an operational C.o.I. church.

As such it would have continued in use up until the 1840s, when a new church was built in nearby Portrush.

Prior to that time, the churchgoers who came here would have been Presbyterian rather than C.o.I. Portrush was only a village at the time and thus the congregation here would have been made up of locals from within a five mile radius or thereabouts. The congregation was fairly small too, probably less than 100 people, even though the building itself was quite substantial. Maintaining a large building was a drain on their resources and so they actually walled off part of the church interior to make the place smaller and more suitable for their purposes.

Audio Clip 1: William Roulston - a brief historical background



Dr Bob Curran tells us that the oldest headstone in the graveyard is a particularly interesting one. It marks the grave of a Royal Princess, the illegitimate daughter of James 2nd, King of England to be exact!

King James was on his way in 1689 to the siege of Derry. He stopped off en-route for 3 days in Ballymoney. Whilst there he “took a shine”, as they say here, to a local farmer’s daughter. This farmer thought he might gain some favour from the King by offering his daughter for an evening’s companionship. This he did. King James took him up on the offer but moved on after his short stay, never to return.

It later transpired that the farmer’s daughter was pregnant. King James, who actually had seven illegitimate children during his life, denied having any relationship with the daughter of the farmer.

The child she bore was called Dorothea and was brought up into a Protestant Family. She subsequently married a wealthy Coleraine Merchant called Ross and died early in life, only in her twenties. Local legend has it that she actually died giving birth.

Dorothea, daughter of King James 2nd, is now buried right here in Ballywillan. Her headstone is said to have been erected by Queen Anne, her half sister. On the headstone is the Stuart Coat of Arms and a Fleur de Lys.

It’s worth considering that had Dorothea Ross lived to survive William 3rd and Queen Anne, She would have had claim to the Throne of England.

Had she lived she would have also changed the entire history of both Ireland and England. William was not popular and there were those with a definite interest in having him replaced.

Any successor had to be a Protestant and Dorothea would have made an ideal candidate. She was well thought of, well married and would very probably have been a popular choice at the time.

The Coat of arms and the Fleur de Lys is just visible on Dorothea's headstone
The Coat of arms and the Fleur de Lys is just visible in this photo of Dorothea's headstone


One of Dorothea’s contemporaries (who isn’t buried here at Ballywillan) was the most famous “Giantess” in Ireland, Mary Murphy, who came from “the Island of Portrush”. She was around 7 feet tall and had the honour of entertaining King William 3rd and Queen Mary 2nd in London. She danced an Irish jig and sang an Irish song, for which she was paid the fee of one guinea.

Although almost 7ft tall, she was very attractive and had no shortage of local suitors. She turned them all down however and married a French sea captain who happened to be passing through the port of Portrush. After marrying her he gave up his life at sea and took up the job of exhibiting Mary as an attraction at side shows around the countryside. Mary’s last recorded appearance was at a side show attraction not far outside the city of Paris. By that time she had been abandoned by her husband and was destitute.

Audio Clip 2: The Princess and the Giantess


Jarno McAfee - Mar 07
such a lovely church


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